Without frontiers

Lois Stonock

There is an opportunity to give the arts new meaning for local communities, writes Lois Stonock.

Museums, theatres, radio stations, artists, administrators, thinkers and creatives are just a few of the places and people that fall into a sector called ’the arts’. I like to think of them as the preservers of our heritage, as story tellers, as fantasists, as guardians of the intangible and the not too sensible. A small, inspired and sometimes eccentric army who house, build, and preserve our souls. It’s a mission without frontiers, so it is perhaps not a shock that a survey by the Creative Industries Federation showed 96 per cent of its members wished to remain in the EU. The recent resignation of Martin Roth as director of the V&A Museum in London has been a very public example and a symbol of the turmoil and uncertainty across the arts since the announcement of the EU referendum result on 23 June.

Watching the BBC coverage following the result, I was struck to hear one interviewee saying their reason for voting to leave was that the EU had spent “9m euros on art”.   I have not been able to validate this figure. However the Arts Council England (ACE) notes that in the past two years, UK arts organisations have been recipients of more than 40m euros through the Creative Europe funding platform. On top of that we also receive support through other programmes such as Erasmus, Interreg and the European Development Fund. The possible end of this stream of funding is a reality that we will have to face and coupled with the ever tightening belt of the Arts Council, means that opportunities will be lost.

Stephen Duchar, director of the Art Fund, an organisation which works to ensure our museums are collecting the art we go to see, said: “At one level there is obviously now great financial uncertainty – the effect on European funding streams for the arts, for example – but quite as important is the potential effect on the spirit that drives a myriad of international partnerships in the arts. These are driven at heart by the principle of Britain as a collaborative component of, and participant in, a vibrant European culture. We must work hard to keep this spirit alive, regardless of politics.”

As Duchar points out, the arts collaborate and that is what they are good at. Since 2008 they have had to adapt ways of working and thinking about financially sustaining their practice while keeping free access at the heart of what they do. The referendum result feels a little like the carpet has been pulled from under their feet. Leaving the EU not only reduces funding opportunities directly but also reduces the scope for partnership  to build reach and scope.

But maybe it’s not all bad if the result pushes us to think harder about what we do. We know that partnership is good and that making our money go further is good. If the referendum results in different people having different conversations then perhaps that is one positive outcome. Ever since Jennie Lee’s White Paper ’A Policy for the Arts – First Steps’ back in 1965, the Arts Council has instilled into our sector an inherent need for the arts to be ’for all’. We know we need to have a deep working knowledge of who our museums and theatres are for and what it is they do, but are we there yet? John Kieffer’s essay  ’Where has all the Chaos Gone?’ for the Centre for London argues that the arts are still not yet for all, and as proof we only need to look at the lack of diversity in our sector. There we see a painful but clear reminder that there is still a way to go.

I think the Paul Hamlyn Foundation got a sense of this when commissioning Bernadette Lynch’s paper ’Whose Cake is it Anyway’, in which Lynch interrogates education programmes in museums to understand to what extent they action the feedback from their local communities.  Even though mechanisms are in place to gather input from audiences, sometimes these reflections are set aside in favour of other visions. Or sometimes it’s only the feedback which is most conducive to a vision that’s already been decided on which ends up being taken on board.

The challenge for the sector is two-fold. Building partnerships has never been more important, both to ensure funding and to support artistic exchange bringing in new ways to inspire and involve audiences. Keeping partnerships viable during the planned exit from the EU will be crucial. But perhaps this is also a moment to think about partnership more widely. How can we rebuild trust with local communities whose interests and needs are clearly far away from those of our large London-based or national institutions? How can we build space for them to get involved and be part of this currently exclusive sector? Perhaps when we can think about this we can start to see the arts taking on new meaning for those who have felt the sector is too expensive or just not for them.

Image: Mark Chadwick

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This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of the Fabian Review.